CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I found about a pound of chanterelle mushrooms in the woods last week. I think. I'm almost sure. They looked like chanterelles. They matched Internet descriptions of chanterelles. Someone I trust looked at a tiny cellphone picture of them and said they were probably chanterelles.
Ultimately, they tasted like chanterelles, and they didn't poison me or make me sick.
Working in restaurants, I've seen and cooked hundreds of pounds of wild mushrooms. But I've never gone mushroom hunting. I've seen wild mushrooms in plastic crates and cardboard boxes but never peaking up out of the dirt on the forest floor.
Until last week, when I was walking in the woods in South Charleston and saw a bright yellow, flowery, funnel-shaped fungus sticking up through the forest detritus.
I picked it. It looked like a chanterelle. It was firm and yellow, ornate and irregular. Its stem and cap were all one piece. It had "false gills" underneath (as opposed to the "real gills" of a white mushroom, which detach from the cap). All good signs.
Then I saw another a few feet away. And another. I picked them and put them in a small paper sandwich bag.
I took a cellphone picture and sent it to Bruce, a chef I used to work for who's been cooking wild mushrooms longer than I've been alive, with the caption, "Chanterelles?"
He responded: "Yes, or something like them. Hard to tell for certain from tiny picture."
There is a moment the first time you pick wild mushrooms when thoughts like "Am I really going to eat these crazy-looking things? They might make me really sick" are outweighed by thoughts of "What should I make with these crazy-looking things? I bet they're really good."
For me, Bruce's tepid confirmation was the tipping point.
(Note: Many wild mushrooms are poisonous and can make you very sick or even kill you. Do not eat them unless you are 100 percent sure you know what they are. Pick them only with someone with experience doing so. Do not rely on pictures from the Internet. Do as I say, not as I do.)
I thought about pasta sauces and risottos and roasted meats sitting on a bed of mushrooms.
I kept walking through the woods and I kept thinking. These were, at least for me, special mushrooms. They were rare, unexpected and a little bit thrilling. They shouldn't have to share the plate with anything else.
So I decided to cook them simply and put them on a piece of good, crusty toast.
The procedure for cooking mushrooms, no matter what kind, is almost always the same. Make sure they're dry. Put them in a very hot pan with a little oil. Don't crowd them. Let them brown. Throw in a knob of butter. Add chopped shallots and garlic (or whatever allium is handy). Season with salt and pepper. Deglaze the pan with alcohol -- sherry and Madeira are traditional, but any wine will do.
From there you can use them for almost any purpose: soups, sauces, side dishes.
Add a little cream for richness and to bring everything together into a nice saucy ragout.
Throw in a handful of chopped parsley for color, and spoon it all onto the warm bread.
Topping the whole thing off with an egg sunny-side up is a soigné move.
A little secret of fine-dining restaurants is that plain old white button mushrooms, although they're not as elegant or exotic, have, when treated correctly, just as much flavor as most wild varieties, which can cost 10 times as much.
So go to the store and buy some mushrooms if you don't happen to stumble upon some in the woods.
You won't get the smug feeling of exhilaration that you've found something rare and expensive, but you also won't have that nagging feeling of trepidation that, despite what your senses are telling you, there's a slight chance that what you're about to eat could make you quite ill.
Creamy Mushroom Bruschetta